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Roam Free, Data!

The EU is drafting a ban on mobile data roaming charges. The new regulations promise to save money for customers, and pose challenges for operators. Luckily, LTE has a built-in solution.

As we all rely more on our phones, and increase our connections to the cloud, the more data we consume. Fast networks are also increasing usage. A recent report from the GMSA revealed that LTE users consume 1.5GB of data per month on average, which is almost twice the average amount consumed by non-LTE users.

On your home network, that might not be so noticeable. You may have a decent data allowance, and you may well be using WiFi most of the time you’re going about your business at home, work, coffee shops, etc.

However, go abroad and suddenly the new normal of being always connected, always talking to the cloud can become a financial nightmare. There’s even an official term for it: bill shock.

On a recent trip, my traveling group of four people (with seven devices) collectively racked up 8.21 GB in just 17 days. (If I we hadn’t taken all these precautions , it could have been far worse—like £26,750 worse. On busy days, we were hitting 1 GB. If it wasn't for days in places like Wadi Rum, where we had zero coverage, we could have hit double that number.

Wadi Rum

And it isn't just me that thinks this could be improved. The EU is drafting a ban on mobile roaming charges.

Regulations may not be popular with everyone, but there have been some great examples of improvements to mobile services as a result. One example is mobile number portability (MNP), or being able to take your mobile number with you when you switch providers.

Here’s an interesting part of the draft data-roaming rules: “From 2014, customers would be able to keep costs down by selecting another provider for calls, texts and internet data services while travelling, if their own network charges extra for service abroad. They could do this without having to change their phone number or buy a new SIM card.” Sounds like a great idea. But how would it work? There's no 'button' for that today. How would you find out which local providers offered such a service and switch over?

This isn't the first time that regulatory changes have meant some re-engineering for network operators. Going back to MNP, when the original standards were created, there was no concept of porting numbers. Worse still, your phone number (or strictly speaking, the MSISDN) was used to route calls, messages, etc. to your phone. If it could switch networks, then all the routing mechanisms broke.

The industry found solutions to fix the problems that are still in use today. All of our (SAP Mobile Services) messaging services are served by an in-house MNP solution that is essential to getting a message to where it should be.

Luckily, there’s good news for the roaming regulations: the new LTE standards actually foresaw this very requirement. Local breakout is a key feature of LTE. It enables visitor networks to break out internet sessions into home network, instead of routing back to home networks for lower-priority traffic, e.g. Facebook could use local breakout, whereas a banking app may want to continue routing back to the home network for security reasons.

The benefits of local breakout are:

  • Lower latency experienced by the roaming device
  • Lower data bandwidth requirement between home network and visited network.

You can read more here.

So for heavy mobile users like myself, we can look forward to lighter phone bills when we travel in future.